Neal Bledsoe (3)

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  • Our native Seattleite went into Sunday night looking for a proxy war between the Seahawks and the red-state, red-clad visitors, in town for a game heavy with NFL playoff implications. As he roamed CenturyLink Field, he found something much different.
By Neal Bledsoe
December 25, 2018

There’s a part of me that never wants to come home for Christmas. The pains of years past are always present. I’m not trying to Scrooge on Christmas here, of course there are joyful moments as well, hearty hugs and bouts of rollicking laughter. But the joy is inseparable from the pain. It’s complicated. It’s home. It’s family. It’s Christmas.

I’m from Seattle, a city whose culture can call to mind a millennial yogini with a healthy Instagram following who’s never suffered a day in their life, but who’s constantly preaching the power of affirmation as a way to triumph over adversity. That’s not my family’s sin—thank God, no—we are a cynical bunch who asks questions by loudly telling you the answers. Being the youngest and only one to live away from Seattle, I always come home with something to prove, which only proves to make me feel foolish. But, it’s family and it’s Christmas, a time we are told to bury the hatchet with those we might want to bury the hatchet in.

Likewise then, the Kansas City Chiefs came to bury their hatchets into the Seahawks, breezing into to town as they looked to prove themselves and lock up home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. They, like the youngest child of a loud family, had a lot to be proud of, boasting six Pro Bowlers, including the young, dynamic Patrick Mahomes. But they limped into the Pacific Northwest, having narrowly escaped Baltimore and then having their hearts torn from their chests by the Chargers on a Thursday night. The Seahawks were little better, having laid a rotten egg against the 49ers last week; it was anyone’s guess which team would show up Sunday night, the chickens or the hawks. Both teams had only themselves to blame for any late 2018 hiccups, but let’s be honest, who hasn’t had a rough end to 2018? Despite all of that, they would meet on Sunday Night Football, just before Christmas, with the playoffs on the line.

The NFL often preaches that, “Football is Family,” and it all seemed so bright-paper-package-tied-up-with-string-perfect that it got my gears turning about football and Christmas, this game of violence played on this holiday of forgiveness. Would Sunday night’s game be a proxy war for bragging rights between one team donning red and hailing from conservative Missouri, and the other donning blue and representing liberal Washington? Maybe our current national schism could be settled by 60 minutes of these two cities knocking each other around, but maybe the divisions are too deep for all that. I was ready for Seattle to be on a war footing, anticipating some form of aggression from the insurgent red team, marauding commandos in Travis Kelce and Mahomes jerseys hurling bricks through the display windows of Nordstrom. If that happened, seething Seattleites would no doubt let their affirmations go and let loose the passive-aggressive dogs of war, hurling withering gazes like grenades…

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I walked toward the stadium through Pike Place, past the fish throwers in the market, where I got my first taste of battle. Staked into the crushed ice next to headless silver salmon was a sign that read, “WELCOME KANSAS CITY CHIEFS FANS!”

This was no way to win a war, I thought, stunned. Maybe it’s a tactic…

Neal Bledsoe

Downstairs I approached a couple near the magic shop, him wearing a Seahawks jersey and her a Chiefs. They were from Vancouver, Wash. I got into it right away and asked them if this game reflected our current political impasse. “I’m not sure I understand the question,” he stammered. “Um… the quarterbacks remind me of each other.” I thanked them for their time and walked on.

All of downtown Seattle toward Pioneer Square was now streaming with blue and electric green, while a few men in bright red strutted proudly toward C-Link. But there was no animosity to be found. Everywhere I looked there were images of red and blue harmony. Couples wearing Mahomes and Russell Wilson jerseys, men bellying up to bars with the enemy, apparently friends. I met two Chiefs fans from Vancouver, B.C. at a crosswalk who said that there just weren’t the same rivalries with Seattle, but they were bullish about their boys’ chances. “Chargers lost yesterday too, couldn’t happen to a nicer city,” sneered one.

What’s going on here, I thought, now we’re having a go at L.A.? Where was all this bad blood?

As I passed through security, a man in a Seahawks hardhat full of liquid courage flirted with an equally imbibed woman in Chiefs jammies. “You can win every other game except this one,” he cooed at her, before adding, “and the Super Bowl.” She giggled and coquettishly walked away for another drink.

Inside, the stadium was its typically loud self. Cliff Avril raised the 12th man flag while Seahawks greats of yesterday paced the sidelines with local celebrities in fine wools and tailored suits. Big Walter Jones was there, as was a hunter-hatted Joel McHale, who strode past with his family off the field toward their seats. SeaGals in blue Santette velour, danced chirpily in the end zone with Christmas canes as the coin was tossed and the game boomed to life.

The proxy war had begun…

“SEA-HAWKS,” seethed the crowd. “SEEEEEAAAAA———HAWKS!” It was a tidal roar that hung in the cold damp air like the menace of a barbarian hoard.

Seattle got off to a fast start with Chris Carson punching it in for the early lead. Mahomes looked shaky out of the gate, missing six of his first seven throws including one intended for a wide-open Kelce. Maybe the noise was getting to him. Sebastian Janikowski, looking more longshoreman than kicker, shanked an easy field goal off the upright. Then the Chiefs were back in it, as Mahomes hit Damien Williams to make it 10-7—it would be a good game, you could feel it—Wilson’s touchdown pass to Nick Vannett put Seattle back on top 14-10, as the young tight end ran to embrace the 12’s like long-lost family. Two players named Hill—Tyreek for the Chiefs and Delano for Seattle—raced to recover a K.C. fumble and the game was sent to halftime with Seattle up 14-10.

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I wandered the concession stands in the bowels of the stadium and saw more of these perceived enemies co-mingling, sometimes even in the same outfit. Where was this war? Craig Norman, who used to live in Seattle but moved to K.C. and now lives in Texas, was wearing a Chiefs jersey but a Seahawks hat. Did he even know who he was rooting for?

“He’s just cheering all the time,” his friend Rob, in Hawks garb, teased him.

“The guys in my section are really aggravated with me,” admitted Craig.

“They’re actually mad at you,” I asked hopefully, “because you don’t know who you’re rooting for?”

“No, I like both teams,” he shrugged. “Those guys all know me, so…” He smiled.

No bad blood there.

Neal Bledsoe

Taylor Reis had family in Missouri but lived in Alaska and had inherited the Chiefs. He’d flown down to see the game, wearing a Kelce Jersey on his first visit to C-Link. I asked him if anyone here had mistreated him.

“It all depends,” he said warily.

“Depends on how drunk they are?” I asked.

He shook his head. “It’s all in good fun,” he chuckled. “My favorite part is just being surrounded by fans from different teams.”

“So the mistreatment never approaches our national politics?” I asked.

He shook his head again. “Just light-hearted,” he said.

Dom Doolin from Kansas City was visiting his sister in Seattle; his birthday on Christmas, all he wanted was a Chiefs win. But, he warned, “Our defense has to show up.”

I asked him if football was still a safe forum for public disagreement.

He agreed. “It’s all in good nature, ’cuz no matter what happens, we all turn to each other and say, ‘Good play.’ ”

“Which stadium is louder?” I asked.

He gave me an incredulous look. “Ours. By far. Even Cleveland was louder than this.”

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A Mahomes touchdown knotted it up at 17 as two Chiefs fans, Randy and Kristen from Portland, shared their box of Red Vines with a large man in a Seahawks hoodie who talked excitedly about the game.

“That was Christmas-y of you,” I told her.

“Well, I only shared 3,” she clarified, “I ate the other 17.”

The stadium thundered again as Russell went over the top to Baldwin who made a leaping catch for the touchdown. 24-17 Hawks.

Erik from Texas slung craft beers to the fans desperately loading up before last call at the end of the third quarter. His vitiligo skin and friendly gold-toothed smile gave him an air of mirth, as he said, “We need the win baby!”

Then we both took a moment to behold a soused Santa pose for pictures with every girl he could, no doubt trying to coax from them some last-minute Christmas wish. Erik laughed and turned back to me. As a bar man, he saw plenty of out-of-towners, but never saw anyone mistreat them.

“This stadium is super inviting for other teams’ fans,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Come on in, we’re Seattle, we want everyone to prosper.’ ”

That’s just what an Instagramming yogini Seattleite would say…

Just then, Santa passed by. “Who’re you rooting for Santa?” I called after him.

“Who the hell you think?” he barked, wandering back into the stands as “Santa Baby” blared as loud as the crowd had ever been. It was the end of the third quarter, he must have heard his mating call.

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Scott from White Center, Wash., was the only member of his family rooting for the Chiefs. He wore a Chiefs Starter jacket from the 90’s and a black cowboy hat, as he cooled his heels, sharing Red Vines—the gift of the season among football fans, apparently—with a man named Chris in Seahawks blue. I posed my questions to them but Chris found it funny.

“Unless you’re a d---, games like this bring people together,” he said.

The Seahawks scored again to make it 31-20, with seven and a half minutes to go. Two young Chiefs fans, one wearing a headdress of feathers, were chased past a burger stand by a drunk Seahawks fan as he chanted, “SEA-HAWKS!” and laughed merrily. “CHIEFS all day, baby!” they bellowed back. When they were finally out of sight, the man led the concession stand workers in the same chant while his daughter tugged at his jacket for attention.

Under the bright lights of Sunday night, Mahomes had settled in nicely, not looking rattled by the noise at all as the game clock wound down. Short passes, a couple of scrambles and some signature Mahomes magic made it 31-28. Just over four minutes to go.

Neal Bledsoe

Back below the stadium, I saw no more signs of disharmony, nor heard a single word of meanness uttered all night. Instead, just signs of this game bringing people together in the stadium. I met two active duty guys in the Navy, drunk and happy, one a Seahawks fan in a wheel chair, the other pushing him, a Chiefs fan. They were having the time of their lives. Brenda Rutherford from Kelso, Wash., had bought her husband, Bob, tickets as a Christmas present. He was wearing his red and yellow with pride, while she was in her best Seahawk blue. On the table in front of them, underneath their burgers and cokes, were two blankets, one red, one blue.

“We can all agree we love football,” she said.

“Who do you want to see win?” I asked.

The Chiefs she admitted, if only to give Bob a proper Christmas gift.

Out on the field, Russell Wilson pushed Carson across the goal line to seal the Seahawks’ victory. A few minutes later, a couple of knees to the ground put the nails in it. The Hawks were now playoff-bound, the Chiefs left with something to prove.

Afterward, the players all exchanged jerseys with one another as Christmas gifts. Cameramen swarmed around Mahomes and Wilson, thinking these two young leaders in gift exchange, smiling detente and mutual admiration was the symbol of the evening. But just a few feet away, two lesser-known players, backups, Austin Calitro and Tanoh Kpassagnon, college teammates from Villanova, found each other at midfield and attempted to give one another the shirts off their backs. As Austin struggled to get out of his Seahawks jersey, Tanoh, now a Chief, helped bail him out once more.

Neal Bledsoe

A shirtless Frank Clark steamed by, as he called to Russell Wilson, “Hey Russ, how bout those playoffs, baby?” Russell, fresh from signing footballs, went over to embrace him. They left the field together as signs around the stadium wished everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanza, Happy Hanukkah and the SeaGals stood at attention, glittering sentinels in the post-game cheer.

Later at the podium, Doug Baldwin, clearly exhausted and still half in his uniform, his arms white from the paint of the field, was asked about the men he played with. His tired eyes focused seriously on the reporter.

“These are great men,” he said. “It’s a great thing to watch these men come together and play together.”

“What would you say about your performance?” another reporter asked him.

“As a great 21st century philosopher once said, ‘I’m just here so I won’t get fined.’ ”

The entire room laughed.

Yet another reporter wanted to know if Richard Sherman could finally eat his words for ever doubting this team, for saying that the Seahawks had lost their way.

“We did lose our way for a minute,” he said. “It was hard to hear the ugly truth about some things, at times, but sometimes the truth is beautiful.”

A few minutes later, a freshly scrubbed Russell Wilson, wearing a blue cashmere coat and a long crucifix that glinted in the podium lights, was all positives, all congratulations and showered praise for his fellow men.

“It’s just football,” he said, simply with a smile at the end of a long list of people whom he admired.

Neal Bledsoe

Outside the stadium, more Chiefs and Seahawks fans celebrated with each other and made merry long into the near Christmas night. It struck me that football games like these might be the only safe public forum of disagreement that we have left; a town square where we can have different ideas and desires and yet not hate one another for it. There are still problems with football and this country and families and Christmas and everything, but for one night at least it was put aside and the hatchet was buried.

I walked back toward what used to be home. Every step brought me closer to my family and this city on this holiday, football being the common language we could share. I had come looking for a fight but found only fellowship in football.

Neal Bledsoe is an actor and writer who grew up in Seattle, but for some reason the internet thinks he’s from Canada. That’s nonsense, he was only born there. He’s been a Seahawks fan longer than it’s been fashionable, but has almost given up on the Mariners. On screen, he’s played everything from an Old Spice Man to flying Nazis to Hot Food Truck Chefs, and recently can be seen on the show Shameless, shamelessly flouting his white privilege. Speaking of which, one time he was paid to be a model in a Tiffany’s ad with the Dutch supermodel, Doutzen. Those were the days... You might have also read his series for The MMQB, The Delicate Moron, about his attempt to play professional football with the LA KISS, the Arena League team once owned by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley. His career highlight so far was when Gene said he was, “a very attractive man of great sexual power.” Beyond that he’s published work in Men’s Health and several fine literary journals that no one ever reads. He also has a dog named Pirate who probably has more Instagram followers than you do.

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